Steven Schaaf is an ACOR-CAORC Fellow and a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the George Washington University. His research focuses on the comparative analysis of administrative courts in Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. Below he writes about the Jordanian administrative court system.
When individuals and groups in the Arab world have grievances that involve state actors and agencies, how can they go about trying to resolve them? Recent scholarship on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has become acutely attuned to the avenues of voicing grievances that exist outside of conventional state institutions. The accumulation of articles – academic, policy, and press – on protests in the MENA attests to the growing emphasis on collective action as a means of dispute resolution.
But collective action is not the only – or even the most prevalent – method by which people can pursue their grievances. State institutions provide a host of avenues through which people can articulate their disputes and seek remedies to them. My research in Jordan focuses on one such institution: the administrative judiciary.
In Jordan, the administrative courts have jurisdiction over appeals involving the decisions issued by state actors or agencies. When someone has a dispute pertaining to a final administrative decision – whether that decision was issued by a ministry, a public university, or the Social Security Organization – they may choose to seek a resolution to this dispute by filing a case before the administrative courts. While the bulk of administrative lawsuits involve issues of public employment (so much that judges and lawyers sometimes use the words “litigant” and “employee” interchangeably), these courts also deal with a plethora of other topics, such as citizenship, land, education, social security, and pensions.
Restructuring the Administrative Judiciary
The Jordanian administrative judiciary consists of two courts: the Primary Administrative Court and the High Administrative Court. This two-tiered structure is a recent innovation. Before the 2014 Law of the Administrative Judiciary there was only one administrative court: the High Court of Justice (HCJ). The decisions of the HCJ were final and not appealable to any higher judicial body. The reforms issued in 2014 changed this. In the event that litigants – whether petitioners or respondents – are not satisfied with verdicts issued by the Primary Administrative Court, they now have the right to seek an appeal before the High Administrative Court.
The 2014 restructuring of the administrative judiciary has not merely changed the dynamics of litigation in Jordan. These reforms have also been influential throughout the region. While I was conducting research in Palestine, I found that many judges, lawyers and legal activists advocated for a restructuring of the Palestinian administrative courts following the Jordanian model. These people stressed that dissolving the Palestinian High Court of Justice and replacing it with a two-tiered administrative judiciary (as Jordan did in 2014) would improve access to the judiciary and solidify litigants’ right to appeal.
Of course, we should also keep in mind that there are other implications of establishing a two-tiered administrative judiciary. The ability to appeal lower court verdicts is certainly a valuable right to institutionalize, but these appeals cost money and take additional time. Some litigants are able to endure these costs, but not all can. This means that many people who raise lawsuits before the administrative courts will face practical barriers to asserting their right to appeal, even though this right may be guaranteed by law.
Furthermore, administrative lawsuits in the MENA usually take months, sometimes years, to conclude. While some people are able to be patient while their cases are pending, others have disputes that are more time sensitive. For instance, if a person has lost their job or is unable to access their pension, immediate financial concerns may make it more difficult for them to wait while the courts adjudicate the issue.
This is not to detract from the benefits of a two-tiered administrative judiciary. There are indeed a number of benefits that have come about by replacing the High Court of Justice with two separate administrative courts (primary and appellate). Yet, we should be cognizant of the fact that judicial reforms and structures—though they may be based on sound principles—are not equally accessible to everyone.
Why People Might Not File Administrative Lawsuits
In Jordan, there are about 550 new administrative lawsuits filed each year. This number, in all likelihood, represents only a small fraction of the total disputes that people have as a result of administrative decisions. In other words, some people choose to resolve administrative disputes through litigation, but most do not. How can we explain this variation? Why do some people avoid resorting to the administrative courts, even when their grievances are likely justiciable?
To begin answering these questions, we first need to consider the possible alternatives to pursuing administrative disputes that exist outside of the courthouse. First, and possibly the most common, is to do nothing at all. Oftentimes people may have grievances that arise as a result of administrative decisions, but they choose to accept—or acquiesce to—the decision anyway. Second, is the option to petition state actors, whether through formal or informal channels. People may write letters to ministers or MPs, file formal complaints in state agencies, or try to arrange a meeting with officials who have authority to reverse the decision they seek to contest. There are certainly other avenues of seeking to resolve administrative disputes and these also warrant exploration, but these two are likely the most prevalent.
So why might people choose to do nothing, to petition, or something else entirely, rather than file litigation against injurious administrative decisions? For individuals, as discussed above, the reasons to forego litigation often relate to material concerns. To file a case in the administrative courts can cost up to JOD 300, and registering a lawyer as your representative is an added cost generally amounting to JOD 75. Each person must pay these fees upfront, but if they win the case they will usually be reimbursed by the party who lost the lawsuit (by court order). Still, many people lack the ability to pay these costs out of pocket at the time of registering a case, even if they expect to win the case and receive reimbursement once the case is resolved.
In addition to court fees, of course, are the lawyer’s fees. Contracting a lawyer who is experienced in administrative litigation can sometimes be rather expensive, costing in the vicinity of JOD 1,000—sometimes more. Hence, litigation is often a very costly and time-consuming process, and no litigant, whether individuals or state actors, is guaranteed victory before the administrative courts, so these costs may be for naught.
The Importance of the Administrative Judiciary
The administrative courts play an important role in Jordanian society, by resolving disputes that individuals and groups have against decisions issued by state officials and agencies. The judges on these courts are diligent and clearly take their role in administering justice seriously. In fact, it often appears as if the judges—as well as the courthouse employees—are overworked. The lower administrative court, for instance, usually handles 25 to 30 cases per daily court session.
The important work that these courts conduct warrants greater attention. So too do the practical barriers—such as the financial and time costs of litigation—that sometimes inhibit people from accessing these courts and using them to resolve administrative disputes that directly impact their livelihoods.
Steven Schaaf is a pre-doctoral ACOR-CAORC Fellow, Fall 2017. His project is titled “The Courtroom is a Crucible: Explaining the Dynamics of Administrative Justice in the MENA.” In addition to his research in Jordan, he has conducted fieldwork on administrative court systems in Egypt, Palestine and Qatar.
Steven Schaaf received his B.A. in International Relations from Drake University, and his M.A. in Political Science from the George Washington University. He expects to complete his Ph.D. at the George Washington University (GWU) in 2020. Read his ACOR profile and visit his webpage at GWU https://politicalscience.columbian.gwu.edu/steven-schaaf.